Takeaways from EPA’s recycling framework report
The EPA highlights some of these actions taken by stakeholders in its 2019 National Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling System.

Takeaways from EPA’s recycling framework report

The EPA’s National Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling System report lists key actions taken to improve recycling in 2019 and goals for 2020.

November 20, 2019

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released its National Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling System. The report is the product of a collaborative effort that began on America Recycles Day 2018. 

During America Recycles Day 2018, which took place Nov. 15, the EPA hosted its first America Recycles Day Summit, which brought together stakeholders from across the U.S. recycling system to join the EPA in signing the America Recycles Pledge. Participants included representatives from federal, state, local and tribal governments; the recycling industry; nonprofits; manufacturers; and product brands. According to the EPA, all 45 signing organizations, including the EPA, pledged to work together over the course of 2019 to identify specific actions to take in addressing the challenges and opportunities facing the U.S. recycling system.

The EPA highlights some of these actions taken by stakeholders in its 2019 National Framework for Advancing the U.S. Recycling System. Areas the report looks at include recycling education, recycling infrastructure, secondary materials markets and measurement. 

Recycling education and outreach

According to the EPA’s report, most Americans believe recycling provides an opportunity for them to protect the environment. However, it can be difficult for consumers to understand what materials can be recycled as well as how and where to do so.

The EPA’s report indicates the need for the U.S. to develop clear, consistent messages about proper materials management activities that enable consumers to recognize the value of reusing, recovering and recycling materials as well as the value of buying products with recycled content.

Some challenges in this area include inconsistent messaging about recycling; products being labeled as recyclable that aren’t supported by infrastructure or secondary markets in a specific location; and limited public awareness about the role of the commodities market in developing better recycling programs. 

Some actions taken in 2019 to address this area included: 

Keep America Beautiful, Stamford, Connecticut; The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia; and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, Charlottesville, Virginia, have developed an infographic that highlights positive messages about the U.S. recycling system. 

• The Recycling Partnership announced the launch of DIYSigns, a free online resource that can be used to educate consumers on what can be recycled in their areas. 

• The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in coordination with the city of Cincinnati, announced the Beyond 34: Recycling and Recovery for a New Economy Program would be expanded in Cincinnati.

• The Can Manufacturers Institute, Washington, and the National Association of Convenience Stores, Alexandria, Virginia, jointly published a report in April 2019 called The Value of Can and Bottle Recycling, which offers guidance to convenience store retailers on how and why to implement recycling programs at their stores. 

• The National Waste and Recycling Association, Washington; the Solid Waste Association of North America, Silver Spring, Maryland; the Northeast Recycling Council, Brattleboro, Vermont; and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, developed a “Think Twice” poster to get individuals to pause and think to avoid adding contaminants to the recycling stream. 

• The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, with assistance from The Recycling Partnership, surveyed material recovery facilities (MRFs) to identify the top contaminants recyclers are receiving. 

The report sets goals for 2020 to develop and make available a set of common recycling messages on nationally significant issues. 

Enhancing infrastructure

According to the EPA’s report, America’s existing recycling infrastructure has not kept pace with today’s changing materials stream. Contamination in the stream can cause equipment failures and halt production lines to allow for the removal of unwanted materials. 

The EPA’s report states that it hopes for a more holistic, modern and adaptable national recycling infrastructure that embraces innovation and is resilient to changes in material streams, markets and consumer expectations.

Some challenges in this area include the lack of resilient recycling infrastructure; insufficient investment to improve or enhance infrastructure capacity; high costs of recycling in some parts of the country; and regional differences on managing materials. 

Some actions taken in 2019 to address this area included: 

• The Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) research program, in coordination with 16 member companies, operated a pilot program to collect flexible film packaging from a single-stream curbside recycling system.

• The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is offering regional recycling infrastructure grants to help areas develop or refurbish residential commingled recycling infrastructure.

• The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is offering grants for recycling capital projects. 

• The Reducing Embodied Energy and Decreasing Emissions (REMADE) Institute, West Henrietta, New York, has 31 public-private partnerships focused on reducing the cost of technologies needed to reuse, recycle and remanufacture materials.

In 2020, the report states there are goals to conduct and compile research on successful infrastructure investments and potential investment opportunities as well as continue support for the MRFF pilot project. 

Secondary materials markets

Recent policy changes, including import restrictions in China and other nations in Southeast Asia, have accelerated the need to improve domestic markets for recyclable materials and products, the EPA states in its report. The EPA adds that it aims to improve the quality of recycled materials so they can more easily be incorporated into products and drive demand for domestic recycling markets.

According to the EPA, some challenges in this area include a need for contract restructuring between municipalities and MRFs in order to better insulate MRFs for market fluctuations; established end markets and MRF technologies are not always being used effectively to identify recyclables that can be included in recycling programs; and the need for more well-crafted policies to encourage robust recycling markets. 

Some actions taken in 2019 to address this area included: 

• The National Recycling Coalition, Erie, Colorado, in partnership with the EPA, the State of Texas Alliance for Recycling, Austin, Texas, and the California Resource Recovery Association hosted three market development workshops across the country that featured information to spur regional markets for recycled materials. Four more workshops are planned in 2020.

• The National Recycling Coalition, in partnership with More Recycling, is working to connect sellers of recyclable materials with potential buyers to create a virtual or web-based marketplace.

• The Association of Plastic Recyclers, Washington, in partnership with The Recycling Partnership, more than doubled the number of companies participating in the Demand Champion Program.

• The Recycling Partnership has developed a best practices document related to MRF processing contracts.

The EPA report sets goals for 2020 to continue to promote government programs to purchase recycled materials, such as EPA’s Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines. It also sets goals to identify and work with companies designing packaging and products to encourage the use of recycled content and improve recyclability of goods.

Enhance measurement

A variety of definitions and recycling rate methodologies exist across the U.S., which creates challenges when setting goals and tracking progress on improving recycling rates, says the EPA report. Stakeholders across the recycling system agree that more consistent measurement methodologies are needed for waste management.

The EPA says it hopes to establish standardized recycling metrics that are supported by consistent terminology and methodology. 

Some challenges in this area include varying measurement definitions causing confusion and limiting understanding of recycling system performance, as well as the lack of methodologies available to classify some municipal solid waste management materials and activities. 

Some actions taken in 2019 to address this area included: 

• A workgroup started to compile information on a range of recycling metrics and measures for use by organizations across the recycling system. The workgroup also compiled a list of published definitions of recycling from the EPA and other publicly available sources and used it as the basis for a draft definition of recycling. In addition, the workgroup developed a recycling system map showing the flow of materials through the system.

• The Can Manufacturers Institute and the Aluminum Association, Arlington, Virginia, jointly produced a sustainability key performance indicator report on the aluminum beverage can focused on a few key metrics. 

• EPA aims to revise the 1997 document Measuring Recycling: A Guide for State and Local Governments to serve as a tool for states to help standardize reporting information. 

• EPA hopes to update its Recon Tool, which calculates greenhouse gas emissions reductions associated with recycled content material.

In 2020, the report states there are goals to provide input to develop additional draft definitions associated with materials flow through the system and to develop a central compilation of data and metrics used to measure recycling or components of the recycling system.